Time to nurture those 'soft skills'

All that caring and sharing didn't die in the Eighties, and it will be indispensable soon. By Roger Trapp
Every graduate entering the workforce today must have imprinted on his or her brain something along the lines of "qualifications, qualifications, qualifications". In a highly competitive world in which there is greater than ever provision of tertiary education, a degree is no longer enough. Graduates looking to distinguish themselves are augmenting impressive academic results by taking professional examinations or studying for higher degrees, especially the MBA.

But, for all this apparent emphasis on brainpower, it does not take most raw recruits long to realise that they must exhibit something else if they are to become genuine high-fliers. Being able to do the job is largely a given (even if certain members of older generations have qualms about current new graduates' abilities in such areas as grammar and spelling). Success depends upon such intangibles as being able to get along with people, being able to express yourself and being able to respond to changing environments - as is increasingly common in modern organisations.

If this sounds pat, do not be surprised. Though they may not have articulated it in such terms, all sorts of employers have long recognised the need for people who combine intelligence with what might be termed a common touch or common sense. That is why their application forms commonly left plenty of space for candidates to describe what they were doing when they were not swotting for their A-levels. And why the not-so-athletic felt they took on too many sports stars.

But, since this is the 1990s, there is a phrase for such an approach - "emotional intelligence". Developed by former science journalist Daniel Goleman and described in a book of the same name, it is an idea that has taken off to such an extent that even its progenitor is amazed. Dr Goleman, a psychologist who gave the keynote speech at the BT Forum's annual national communication conference in London last week, says that he is intrigued by the fact that the book has become a bestseller in every country in which it has been published. "People around the world are facing the same kinds of problems," he adds.

What these difficulties come down is that the so-called soft skills have become all-important, too long ignored or badly dealt with by organisations. Rather than, say, an ability to get the numbers right, these skills are now seen as the crucial factor in success. That would not be so bad if people currently entering the workforce were not deemed to be weaker than their predecessors in this area. It might be something to do with the increasing competition for jobs forcing students to concentrate on their studies and not indulge in what might euphemistically be termed a "wider education". But Dr Goleman believes it also has something to do with modern society.

Children are the victims of changes that mean that parents have to work harder - and so might have less time to devote to them - while the ubiquity of modern technology means that many youngsters spend vast amounts of time in front of videos or computer screens rather than playing with other children.

The pick-up games of football that used to be commonplace in residential streets furnished children with all sorts of life skills, such as the ability to control anger and to settle disputes, that can prove invaluable at work, he argues.

Dr Goleman is now working on a book about how to transfer EQ, as this antidote to IQ is termed, to the workplace. For the moment, he characterises emotionally intelligent people as self-directed self-starters, highly motivated and, above all, excellent communicators. As such, they are likely to emerge at the top of organisations. Those with high IQs but limited emotional intelligence will progress some way but may - like the financial services executive Dr Goleman was told of - find themselves jettisoned for causing too many problems among staff.

In the meantime, two consultants - Robert Cooper and Ayman Sawaf - have attempted to fill the gap by publishing Executive EQ, with the aim of providing guidance and practical examples on how EQ can "enhance personal and corporate performance". Although many people may be dismayed to learn that they lack the sort of skills that "the playing fields of Eton" once instilled in the privileged, neither Dr Goleman nor Messrs Cooper and Sawaf are off-putting. The ability to manage feelings, be a good listener and know who you are is not taught at school, but they can be learned.

Certain psychological theories that individual characters are determined by whether they are born ahead of or after siblings are currently in vogue, leading to the popular notion of first-born children becoming "neurotic over-achievers". But Dr Goleman dismisses the idea that we are "prisoners of our childhood" and stresses that such techniques as 360-degree feedback - under which employees are assessed by subordinates, peers and even outsiders, such as customers and suppliers, as well as superiors - can help develop EQ. Messrs Cooper and Sawaf have even developed an EQ "map" that enables individuals to assess their own profiles and test their emotional intelligence.

Whichever approach they go for, ambitious high-fliers, or indeed anybody who wants to survive in the 21st century organisation, need to remember the message of Executive EQ. With a high IQ, you may get hired by a reputable company, it says, but with a high EQ you will get promoted; with a high IQ, you can be an efficient professional or manager, but with a high EQ, you can become a great leader n

Daniel Goleman's 'Emotional Intelligence' was published in Britain by Bloomsbury last year. Robert Cooper and Ayman Sawaf's "Executive EQ" was published on 19 May by Orion Business Books.

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